Ruffin, Thomas (1787-1870)
Thomas Ruffin (1787-1870)
Southerner. Because economic development created so many of the challenging issues in state law from 1815 to 1850, most of the celebrated judges of the era sat on the courts of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and other economically advanced jurisdictions. The foremost exception was Thomas Ruffin, the best-known member of the southern judiciary in the second quarter of the century. Born in rural King and Queen County, Virginia, Ruffin was related to the famous southern nationalist Edmund Ruffin. He received his early education in Warrenton, North Carolina, and graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1805. After studying briefly for the law in Petersburg, Virginia, he joined his family in moving to North Carolina and settled in Hillsboro.
Path to the Bench. A fervent Jeffersonian Republican, Ruffin represented Hillsboro in the North Carolina legislature and served as speaker in 1816. He was then elected a trial judge, but he resigned after only two years to return to private practice. Notwithstanding the difficulty of travel in North Carolina, he customarily attended the weekly meetings of two courts for forty-two weeks each year. As he prospered he became immersed in banking matters and became president of the state bank. He was elected associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1829 and four years later became chief justice, a position he held until 1852.
Judicial Style. Ruffin, no less than his northeastern contemporaries, represented what the legal scholar Karl Llewellyn called the “grand style” of judicial reasoning. His more than fourteen hundred opinions were distinguished by their plain exposition and their reliance on logic and policy considerations rather than precedent. Consistent with his early interest in banking, he was generally favorable to the Whig program. In his most remarkable Whig decision Ruffin found in Hoke v. Henderson (1833) that an officeholder’s property interest in his position could not be eliminated unless the state abolished the office. Hoke was contrary to all other federal and state judicial decisions on the issue and was reversed by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1903, but the United States Supreme Court adopted a similar analysis of government employment as a property interest in the 1970s.
Slavery. Ruffin differed from his northern contemporaries, however, in that he routinely decided cases relating to slavery. His opinion in State v. Mann (1829), characteristically based on Ruffin’s social and philosophical analysis of the peculiar institution, is perhaps the most famous southern judicial examination of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe observed in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) that “no one can read this decision, so fine and clear in expression, so dignified and solemn in its earnestness, and so dreadful in its results, without feeling at once deep respect for the man and horror for the system.” But Ruffin, like other southern jurists, frequently found that his logic in slavery cases led to conclusions that he did not want to accept. Despite his argument of State v. Mann that masters must enjoy “absolute dominion” over slaves, Ruffin refused in Parham v. Blackwelder (1848) to hold masters liable for damages resulting from mistakes committed by their slaves, such as cutting timber on the wrong side of a property line. Throughout his slavery cases he struggled with the abject legal status of slaves and his acknowledgment that they were “responsible human beings, having intelligence to know right from wrong, and perceptions of pleasure and pain.” At times he invoked natural law to resolve the conflict. In Cox v. Williams (1845) he upheld a challenge to a will that bequeathed slaves, upon their consent, to the American Colonization Society for transport to Africa. Ruffin ruled that if the slaves elected to remain in North Carolina in bondage, their children must nevertheless enjoy the right to decide upon reaching the age of fourteen whether to remain in the country. In this reasoning, slavery was so contrary to natural law that parents could not choose it for their children.
Reluctant Rebel. After resigning from the bench in 1852, Ruffin returned for one more year in 1858 but for the most part dedicated himself to the promotion of scientific farming methods as president of the state agricultural society from 1854 to 1860. Like many Whigs in the border states, he energetically sought to avoid disunion. He served in the North Carolina delegation to the Washington Peace Conference of 1861 and worked for compromise in the secession convention. He followed his state into the Confederacy, however, and loyally supported it during the war. In 1866 he led the rejection of the new state constitution proposed under Andrew Johnson’s plan of reconstruction. He was aghast at the ascendancy of Congress and the beginnings of Radical Reconstruction. He died at his home in Hillsboro in 1870.
J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, ed., The Papers of Thomas Ruffin, four volumes (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton, 1918–1920);
Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).